Saturday, 28 March 2015

Review - RAB Exodus Softshell Jacket

When venturing into the mountains, we are constantly exposed to the elements. No matter how amazing human skin is, it still needs protection. Some people get by with the latest in expensive, high tech materials, others with a simple bin liner with holes cut into it for the head and arms (if you have even the smallest of brains, never do this!). Back in the day it was a simple waterproof jacket to keep the wind, rain and snow off. But within the last 10 years, Softshell has really taken off. At first people were skeptical: warmer than a hardshell but not as waterproof. Colder than a fleece but more windproof. So where does it stand? Today though, it's what a majority of people go to as their protective layer. But with so many variations and choice for us on the market, we need to narrow this selection down and be realistic about our intended use. For me, I wanted a mountain specific jacket with a hood large enough for a helmet, no membrane, harness accessible pockets and breathable but still keep out all but the worst that the weather can throw at me. So I settled on this jacket: the RAB Exodus.

Now before I begin, I have to emphasise on what I said above about being realistic with out intended use of a jacket. The RAB Exodus was intended as a Ski Touring softshell jacket. When doing research into a new layer, I, like everyone else and the purpose of this post, read reviews. I've had a look recently to see what others have said about the Exodus and I've found a few gems, but not for the right reasons. Firstly, I saw a brilliant one from someone on a well known 'Outdoors' equipment retailer website stating that they got 'soaked to the skin' in the Lakes, 'water repellent my ass' and will never buy RAB again. I'm only speculating but I'm assuming that this person doesn't know the difference between WATER PROOF and WATER REPELLENT. This is not a waterproof jacket, you will get 'soaked to the skin' in the pissing rain wearing this jacket. Secondly, I read someone elses review on their blog about why manufactures believe that all wearers will be wearing a helmet and that the hood on this jacket is too large and that RAB should do away with it. That the pit zips are pointless and that the small pocket on the arm is also useless. Well, the thing is this; as mentioned above, this jacket was intended for ski touring/mountaineering and not summer walking in the UK. For skinning up hill, climbing a winter route and skiing down. So yes, RAB do believe that wearers of this jacket will be wearing a helmet, the pit zips are useful for venting when skinning and the small pocket is for a ski pass. I'm not having a go at these other reviewers as they're doing exactly what I'm doing here, voicing an opinion. But they're reviewing a jacket in an environment which it wasn't intended for. And for all of you thinking 'well who's to say where we can and can't use our jacket?' this isn't what I'm getting at. It's like me reviewing an expedition down jacket saying it's far too warm and they should reduce the fill, after using it as a shell layer, going for a walk up Scafell in the summer. Not it's intended use. 

But lets get down to my review ;-)

Weight: 701g (large)
Heavy-weight Matrix DWS™ fabric
Helmet compatible hood, wired peak
kitty clip roll down closure
YKK calendered front zip, internal storm flap, chin guard
2 A-line YKK calendered zipped pockets
1 small YKK calendered zipped security pocket on sleeve
YKK calendered pit zips
Articulated sleeves
Velcro® cuffs, hem drawcord
Fit: Regular

6' 1" (185cm)
40" Chest
32" waist
Used for UK winter climbing and skiing/touring in the alps

I bought this jacket in size Medium for winter climbing and have also used it for skiing and ski touring. It's a non-membrane, non-fleece lined jacket meaning that it relies on the close double weave of the fabric to offer the protection and not a sewn in membrane, like gore windstopper, and isn't as warm as other softshells which have a Polartec internal lining. This makes it lighter than other softshells in it's category, more breathable and in my eyes, far more versatile as I find fleece lined jackets are too warm  and I like the ability to adjust my core temperature through use of different weight insulated mid layers. However it does mean that you are relying on the DWR and close weave to offer the precipitation protection which may not be as protective as one with a membrane. For me, this wasn't an issue as if I do need extra protection, then I'd throw on a hardshell.

Rather crappy conditions in the Lakes mixed climbing. Top belay on Two Grooves (IV,6)
The regular RAB fit fits me perfectly (I must be their ideal Medium model). Not a tight, athletic fit but not too loose so it's baggy. There's plenty of room for another layer underneath like a fleece but you might want to size up if you're predominately going to wear something like an Atom LT or Nano air synthetic layer under it. The hem is a good length, not so long that it looks like you're wearing an old scool anorak and not too short so that it shows belly. It doesn't ride up too much whilst wearing a harness, when reaching up with an ice axe or pulling over a rock step. The arms are more than long enough so that they don't roll down when reaching up and I really like the rubber velcro cuff closure, you get a really good seal around the wrists even when not wearing gloves. Unlike some others, I love the hood. I think it's one of the best features of the jackets. It's bloody huge! It easily swallows a helmet and offers that perfect little sanctuary away from the nastiness outside. There's a drawcord on the back of the hood to tighten it around the helmet or around your head if not wearing one, however it's not the most secure if not wearing a helmet and can be blown off in strong winds, but it hasn't happened very often. The wired peak is excellent at keeping it's shape and keeping snow, drips and spindrift away from the face. An important feature of a hood is for it to move with your head and the Exodus does this very well. As always, you're not going to have the freedom of movement like if you're not wearing a hood, but the stretch in the fabric and the range of adjustments help all they can. But for me, as long as I can look up at my partner on a climb and not get asphyxiated by the collar and have the ability to look left and right without just seeing 'hood' then it gets my vote.

I mentioned above about the stretch in this jacket. It really does stretch quite well. When reaching for gear on the opposite side of my harness, or pulling on an adjustment shoulder strap on my pack, the stretch in the material, especially over the back of the shoulders, helps to make it a lot easier, instead of another struggle on the crux of a route. There's not really a lot more to say about the stretchiness of the jacket, the clue is in the name...strrrrrrrretch.

It's a pretty featureless jacket which I like, no fancy gimmicks and toggles to whip you in the face and all the necessary features. Just 2 pockets in the body a small accessory pocket on the left arm and pit zips. The zips run smoothly and all are easily used with gloves on. The pockets are a good size for a phone, topo or some snacks or even a map as they extend all the way up the torso and are not hindered by a harness or pack waist belt. The pocket in the arm, as far as I'm aware, is for a ski pass, as that really is the only thing that I can think of that you'd want there and that really fits there. But the issue I have with it is that it does have a habit of opening itself ever so slightly. I've never had it open fully but see how this could be an issue if it does and you lose your pass. My suggestion (am I allowed to do this after bitching about others above?) would be to raise the pockets to chest pockets to utilise the space up the torso. The pit zips are great as they come with a 2 way zipper so you can have them opened fully or just a little and create a fair sized opening to dump heat when needed, but not too big so to flap around and get in the way.

Like I mentioned above, I've used this jacket for winter climbing and skiing/touring and have no quivers with it at all. It sheds light snow and drizzle really well, but it does wet out when prolonged to constant precipitation i.e. rain or heavy snow, but does dry out quickly when it gets the chance. I wore the Exodus when skinning up the Grand Montets in December. I put it on from the Lognan where it was -4 and had the pit zips open all the way up to the Herse lift with no issues with overheating (I had a ME Eclipse fleece on under). But I had to do them back up when the winds got stronger higher up the mountain. They're not the biggest pit zips in the world, like the old Patagonia M10, but are a good size to aid in ventilation, By the time we reached the Col des Rachasses, the wind was strong, dropping the temperature down to below -11. The Exodus kept this chilly wind at bay but I do feel that anything stronger and it would start to creep through, after all, you can't have good breathability and maximum wind protection in one package. I was warm enough whilst stationary, taking skins off and having something to eat, as the breathability of this fabric helped to wick sweat away and not saturating the jacket allowing for cold spots.

Belay on Central Route (III) Cwm Idwal. Melting ice and light winds are no match for the RAB Exodus
But this jacket does have a specific area of expertise and that's in cold weather aerobic activities. On my recent trip to Chamonix, I only wore it once as the rest of the time, I found it too warm skiing in the sun on glaciers. For winter climbing, I'd generally wear the Exodus over just a base layer on the walk in with pit zips open, then put an insulated layer on under it for the climb. I hang it up for the summer as it really is just too warm for all year use, but then I do tend to pump out more heat than a nuclear reactor so it's each to there own and some may disagree.

Overall, it's a bomber jacket that can stand up to anything but the worst of conditions when you'll be donning your hardshell and heading to the pub/hut for a beer. It's really robust and puts up with scraping over the rough granite of the alps, the odd wipeout off piste and the teeth of an ice axe over the shoulder when swapping hands. Basically, I have yet to put a hole in it. The stretch really helps with movement and keeping the jacket in place and the breathability is good for when the going gets hot. And lets not forget about that hood! maximum protection and good range of movement, although I have never felt the need to pack it away and when doing so, it just creates a huge collar and the adjustment toggles flap against your face when fully zipped up. So if you're looking for a jacket that'll last many winters against the wear and tear, don't want to break the bank and aren't too worried about the weight (700g) then as far as I'm concerned, you don't get much better for value for money.

No fuss features, glove friendly zips
Weather protection
Good breathability vs wind protection
Huge hood

Small arm pocket zip
Doesn't pack down small
Hood packability

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